People shop at the Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, VaHoliday Shopping, Arlington, USA - 22 Dec 2017

The projections are in and it looks like this will be another banner year for retailers in the all-important holiday shopping season, which has commenced. According to the National Retail Federation, retail sales over the next two months will increase almost 5 percent from 2017, which was already up 5.6 percent from the year before. In other words, the brick-and-mortar retail model is doing just fine, thank you, despite the breathless headlines about a retail apocalypse, which seems to be as fictional as Santa Claus — sorry, Virginia.

The challenge for retailers is how to maximize their share of wallet from consumers during this time. Conventional wisdom says the most successful retailers are the ones who deliver the best customer experience and give shoppers a reason to visit their stores. This is especially important in the digital age, when consumers have plenty of online alternatives if the in-store experience is not up-to-snuff. Indeed, the projected numbers for online sales this holiday season are up almost 15 percent from 2017, though in terms of total dollars, digital sales will be less than a sixth of in-store sales.

So what are retailers to do? Like a good host who meticulously prepares for the onslaught of holiday guests, the best retailers will ensure that the physical environment in their stores delivers on their brand promise. This is the concept of brand uptime, a key performance indicator for retailers (and other brick-and-mortar businesses) that says the way customers perceive the condition of a store’s infrastructure reflects directly on their overall experience. The greater the brand uptime, the more successful a retailer is likely to be.

Technology Can Boost Brand Uptime

Ensuring the highest levels of brand uptime requires facilities management to be a shared responsibility among all stakeholders — from the store manager to on-the-floor employees, and of course facilities managers and their contractors.

One of the biggest issues with “legacy” facilities management has always been visibility. This is especially true for brands that manage multiple stores, which is the norm. Without the proper level of visibility, the proverbial left hand has no clue what the right hand is up to, and facilities issues go unresolved or take too long to get fixed. That is a surefire way to decrease your brand uptime.

Technology has come a long way in the facilities management world to address the visibility problem directly. Solutions such as service automation and other computerized maintenance systems provide unprecedented real-time and historic visibility into a site’s FM operations. Who opened a work order and why? Who was dispatched to fix the issue? Why is the work taking longer than it should? And why does it cost more to fix an issue in one store than another? Answers to these questions and others are readily available from a centralized dashboard that any store employee can access.

Tom Buiocchi

Tom Buiocchi  Courtesy image.

Another way technology boosts brand uptime is by making it easier for non-FM employees to report facilities issues more quickly. The last thing a busy retail employee needs to be doing in the throes of the holiday rush is Googling contractor firms to get an urgent issue fixed. Instead, what if there was a network of pre-approved contractors across all trades, populated into a technology platform, who can be dispatched at a click of a button from a desktop or mobile app? That is possible today through service automation, which explains the growing popularity of this technology in areas such as facilities contractor management or even the IT helpdesk.

Also emerging quickly is the Internet of Things, which includes mechanical and other equipment embedded with software, sensors and communications, which enables it to connect, collect and feed data into central management systems. IoT can boost brand uptime by allowing important facilities equipment (such as an HVAC system) to report problems automatically, with little to no human intervention. If IoT systems are integrated with service automation platforms, they can initiate and dispatch work orders to the appropriate contractors on their own. This is artificial intelligence in action.

IoT also holds promising applications for retailers who operate unmanned kiosks or pop-up stores, an important source of revenue for holiday sales. IoT allows brands to manage their facilities more proactively, which is far less costly and disruptive than dealing with problems on an emergency basis. Repair and maintenance costs would plummet for brick-and-mortar companies if they could shift more of their operations toward prevention versus remediation.

Final Thoughts

The bright sales forecast suggests retail brands everywhere can expect more foot traffic this holiday season, and the brands that deliver the best in-store experience will capitalize the most. There are technologies available today that can help businesses increase their brand uptime by reporting, tracking, and resolving facilities issues before they impact the customer experience. Leading retail brands are implementing these solutions now to reap the benefits of high brand uptime. Are you?

Tom Buiocchi is chief executive officer of ServiceChannel, a facilities management platform.